"So," you begin, "I do think we should take a stab at the old library while we're all together and it's still daylight. ...Buuut I might have a cell phone and a magic ring waiting for me at the Back Room. ...And we should probably eat before we go fight giant animals or ghosts or... whatever."
"You do need a cell phone," Kate remarks.
"It's before 10," says Cici. "All the convenience stores should still have breakfast pizza."
"Cici," replies Kate, shaking her head and putting a hand on the larger lady's shoulder, "there's more to life than pizza. The place next to the Back Room has breakfast burgers."
"Holy shit," you blurt out. A breakfast burger? Is there no limit to man's hubris? Cici's face similarly lights up, as though someone just revealed the secrets of the universe to her.
"We can hit up the Back Room first," Kate concludes, "since it's like... right there."
The bus pulls up, and you all board. Kate pays for Cici's ride.
"It's good to see you all getting along so well," the bus comments. ...But Cici doesn't usually take the bus, so the bus probably doesn't know her. What the bus actually means, you imagine, is it's good to see you making friends Plaire but it'd be weird to single you out like that.
You take your usual seat. You're still thinking about the whole...
You're not a leader. You're like... the opposite of a leader. You're the person that either doesn't want to be in a group in the first place, or does but then proceeds to accidentally fuck everything up for everyone else somehow. You are not a go-getter. You do not take charge. Even when it came to dating Lora, she was basically coaching you until you finally got internet access and could research how lesbians work.
Kate's better at getting shit done. Cici has her life together better.
You're just... the dumbass who owns the house.
...But you ARE the dumbass who owns the house, and that isn't changing any time soon (or at least, you hope not).
You're not in any condition to lead this whole stupid thing. Maybe you should change that.
"I need to start thinking about the long term," you finally force yourself to say.
Cici raises an eyebrow. "What, like planning routes and stuff?"
"Oh, geez, no," you reply. "I mean like getting in better shape. ...Physically AND mentally."
"Yeah," Kate says, "I like the current shoot-from-the-hip approach you're taking to the dirty deed but if what I saw really does represent your brain... girl, you need help."
"The dirty deed...?," you mumble, but Kate continues undeterred.
"Like--the chain things. What the fuck were the chain things?"
You think about it, but not for very long. "Cocoons... people that never finished developing. They settled in halfway, gave up on reaching their potential--wrapped themselves in the binds the system gave them, dressed themselves in the chains. ...Now they lash out at everyone else for not submitting like they did. If you just work hard and commit yourself to a real job, really put your heart into it, you could go places, you just don't take it seriously enough. ...When all they've really accomplished in like forty years of being alive is the lofty heights of assistant manager for a fast food place, recently divorced. I'm the idiot for not walking in those footsteps."
"God damn," says Kate, after a brief silence.
"That's awfully specific," Cici points out.
You shrug. "That guy was the first to pop into my head, but I've dealt with dozens more just like him. My parents, too; even when they started to struggle with medical bills or paying cops to find out who robbed us or whatever, even when they had to do shady shit to keep living comfortably... the system works. Everything's fine. We live in the greatest country in the world.
Pretty much any time I even mentioned the idea of free healthcare, or a non-privatized police force, or how regulation would clean up the water supply... it ended in yelling, and me shutting the fuck up for another month. My parents are well off and they STILL get screwed, over and over, and they NEVER think about how much worse it has to be for people that aren't as lucky as they've been."
"You said your dad looked like a big wall," Cici mentions. "In the other place."
"Yeah," you reply. "Which fits. He's like talking to a wall. He wanted to be a preacher--and could have been, probably, but he also loves gambling and everybody knows it, and everybody talks. He knows he could be a preacher, though, so he acts like he has some divine authority anyway. I can't even talk to him about Bible shit--he acts like I know absolutely nothing, even though HE made the decision to send me to a fucking church school where that's basically all we learned.
The fight's in a big church looking room, and he constantly smashes through all the pews the way he helped decimate my opinion of holy men with stupid titles. YES, arguably, depending on how you translate and read the text Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed in PART for vague sexual deviancy but Lot and his family weren't spared for being STRAIGHT they were spared for BEING GOOD FUCKING NEIGHBORS EVEN TO PEOPLE THEY THOUGHT WERE STRANGE! UGH--"
"Plaire," says Cici.
"Let her go," Kate says softly, trying not to grin. "It's not like the bus hasn't seen someone totally lose their shit before."
"It's fine," confirms the bus, "as long as you don't break anything."
You take a moment to breathe. "I think that's it. I don't even remember what I was talking about."
"Getting in better shape," Kate says, finally letting the grin happen. "I know who to talk to about the mental part. Cici, can you teach her how to exercise? I know you and your jank ass metabolism can't teach her about diet, but--"
"The last time I tried to train somebody I think they almost died," Cici says bluntly. "I work out for fun, I don't wanna hurt her. ...Bebe takes it a little lighter, maybe I could call her?"
Kate shakes her head. "Bebe doesn't work out, that's why I hate your metabolism. And the gym's a no go."
"What's wrong with the gym?," Cici asks.
You and Kate both just... stare at her. "There's people there," you finally reply.
"Oh," says Cici. "Yeah. Hmm. I'll ask around! I'll figure something out."
You arrive at the Back Room.
Inside, Afu is having a... spirited argument with a man in a bathrobe.
"Young Afu," begins the older man, "you know that you're like a son to me--"
"I'm not. You've never said that," interjects Afu,
"--but I'm putting my foot down," he continues. "Your taste in kaiju filmography is frankly juvenile. Taken within the context of the entire franchise, a single film focusing on the perspective of the surviving human cast is ambitious, a truly--"
"Bro. I don't care about the surviving human cast," Afu interrupts, "I paid to see monsters fight. Movie's named Son of Nukasaurus X, not Survivors of Nukasaurus X."
The man in the bathrobe moves... dramatically. The way he sways and motions his arms as he speaks, it's easy to forget that it is in fact a bathrobe, and that he is not a wizard. "The titular son would make for a weak plot otherwise! He's Nukasaurus X, only smaller. No one wants to sit through two hours of... of that."
"I did," says Afu. "If the critic ratings mean anything, everybody wanted to sit through that."
"Bah!," exclaims the wizard with a great sweep of his hand, "No kaiju film gets its critical dues in this country. They've sacrificed the noble art of rubber suit choreography, and to what end? For what gain?! For CGI abominations and an additional 6% on MovieBalls Dot Com?! It is a TRAGEDY, an INJUSTICE and--!"
As he dramatically turns, he spies you, Kate, and Cici standing at the door.
Without missing a beat, he completely switches demeanor. "Oh! Welcome, ladies, to THE BACK ROOM, the world's foremost purveyor of misfit toys--"
"We've all heard the thing already," interjects Kate. "You can skip it, Ezra."
"Damn you, Kate," says Ezra with a shaken fist, "villain that you are! Could you not have mercifully let me continue? Is it not in your black heart to let me perform in blissful ignorance? I'm old. I'm withering away. Let me have this."
"Nah," replies Kate bluntly, "we got shit to do. Plaire's the small one, Cici's the big one, Ezra's the decrepit warlock. Intros are done and you're all welcome."
"Plaire," states Afu, "kaiju movies. Go."
You shake your head. "The only one I've seen is... uh... the one where the speedo guy fights the big pollution monster." It was Massive Wrestler Versus Sumogu, but if you act like you're too cool to remember the name it'll curve the impact of you not knowing shit about kaiju movies. "It was alright."
Ezra is immediately suspicious. "Was it in black and white, or was it in color?"
"Color," you reply.
He gasps, and slightly recoils. "The remake. Ye gods, you poor creature. You really should watch another should you find the time; if you managed to claw some hint of enjoyment out of the Massive Wrestler Versus Sumogu remake, I imagine you must have a taste for the genre."
"Any... recommendations...?," you ask.
"Any of them," Afu says. "Bro. You watched like, the worst one."
"Dorks. Please," interrupts Kate. "This is not what we came here for."
"This place is amazing and I am afraid to touch anything," Cici whispers to no one in particular.
"Yeah," you reply. "How did you...?"
Ezra gives a faint smile. "Afu gave a very detailed description of you."
"Bro," interjects Afu, "why you gotta phrase it like that?"
Ezra, without breaking eye contact with you, smiles a little wider. "I AM curious as to why you seek it." Marlow was right; Ezra does have some intimidating eyebrows.
You don't know if you can trust Ezra.
You don't know if you can trust anybody, really.
"...I don't know if I can tell you," you finally admit. "I don't even really know what it does, just--"
"We're balls deep in weird shit here," says Kate.
"How delightfully ominous!," Ezra declares. "Very well. You know nothing about the ring?"
"Marlow tried to explain it," Afu comments.
"Ah," replies Ezra. He spins in place and begins to dramatically sashay around the counter toward the back. "'Twas the early 1970s! Public interest in the occult was on the rise. Philosophical treatises on the dark arts were being sold in run-of-the-mill bookstores. Horror films began to play up the malevolence of the Ouija board, feeding into its reputation and driving an interest in it that exceeded that of a normal children's toy. Amidst--or perhaps, in response to the arcane suddenly bleeding into the lives of the average consumer, the Christian right stirred from its own slumber... and went to war."
He disappears into the... uh, back room, of the Back Room. He continues talking from an unseen storage closet, though.
While he's talking, and you and Afu are listening, and Kate is impatiently rolling her eyes... Cici sneaks off, carefully navigating her way through the store to look at everything.
"Cult massacres were fallaciously connected to Satanism. Evangelists published interviews with so-called "former devil worshipers," detailing ridiculous practices and outlandish agendas. Tracts were distributed and books were burned. Numerous serial killers throughout the 70s fed into the hysteria, using ritualistic markings and Satanic trappings to enhance their mystique."
He returns, holding the case you recognize as containing the Dream Ring.
"By the 1980s, anti-occult organizations were in full swing, leading a grandiose and heavily televised crusade against the threat of the occult--which they claimed was out to corrupt the nation's youth. Why, even your childrens' favorite toys could secretly be luring them into the open arms of Satan, like some nefarious pied piper! This carried over well into the 90s, when--"
"Ezra," interrupts Kate.
"Hey," Afu chuckles, "he's just getting wound up."
"I mean..." You shrug. "It's interesting, but I kind of already knew about the Satanic panic."
Ezra simply grins, and you swear his eyebrows almost launch themselves through the ceiling.
"I mentioned the Ouija board explicitly," he says, "because the universe enjoys balance... and in many ways, this ring is its cosmic opposite. Its reverse. Talking boards and their earlier equivalent, automatic writing, are ancient--and very real, and very dangerous. I agree that to ban them would be pure fascism--but to market them as a children's toy? Horridly irresponsible. The companies that do so aren't, themselves, believers in the arcane--only in money, and thanks to the reputation of danger and risk built up during the 70s, the Ouija board did make money."
He opens the box, revealing the one remaining ring.
"...This ring is not dangerous. It wasn't manufactured by an oblivious corporation, either. Unlike the Ouija board, it's perfectly harmless. And, unlike the Ouija board, it failed commercially... because unlike the Ouija board, it was made by an actual, practicing cultist, who upon being exposed by allegations in the early 80s was forced to withdraw and disappear forever. ...And he took his toy company with him."
Okay, now we're getting somewhere.
"You could've just skipped to this part," Kate points out.
"I have to establish context!," Ezra insists. "It's a morally complex tale with many a facet, I can't simply--"
"Yeah yeah yeah," Kate interrupts, waving a hand at him. "Dude was in a real cult. Go."
Ezra gives her a glare, his eyebrows threatening to leap off his face and choke her to death--but he collects himself, and continues. "The Day to Come--"
"Miss Halford, please," insists Ezra. "The Day to Come, like other doomsday cults, believed the end was both nigh and inevitable; when the stars were right and the age of men was nearing its grand finale, gods and devils alike would roam the planet. Unlike other doomsday cults, who hoped to either prevent said armaggedon or usher it in eagerly, The Day to Come believed we could survive the apocalypse. To that end, they sought to prepare humankind--to slowly acclimate us to the strange, so as not to be driven to madness. Not all that sinister in theory... but in practice--well."
He gives a wry smile.
"The cult fell apart in the late 70s due to infighting, mostly over method. There was no shortage of rumors regarding the foul deeds that took place at their compound in the name of preparing us for the end. Jolas Alstott escaped Day to Come relatively intact, though its unknown how much he... participated in the cult's more nefarious practices. He started a toy company, which produced very little--the Dream Ring among its line--before his past caught up with him. Stores refused to sell his toys, parents protested outside his factory... and eventually, he was forced to close up shop, never to be heard from again."
Hmm. "You said the ring isn't dangerous, though."
"It's not," replies Ezra, "according to every expert I've ever asked... and I have done no shortage of asking, I assure you. It was advertised as a way for children to help overcome their nightmares, and while the composition of the ring is QUITE unusual, the effects are... hm, likely a placebo. Wear the ring as you fall asleep, think of someone with whom you are close--close enough to have traded true names, that part is critical--and you will have their strength in your dreams. Such a vague premise, of course, made for poor marketing; the ring didn't sell exceptionally well before the cult story began to spread. Jolas Alstott's toy company struggled to reach beyond the South, and had the Satanic panic not destroyed his efforts, he may very well have ended up failing on his own merits."
Ezra removes the ring from the case, holding it up daintily. "It's a very neat accessory, but as a functioning toy for the easily distracted child? 'Twas doomed to fail from the start. I speculate that now, after all that happened... but ha, who can truly say? The inventor of the pet rock became a millionaire, and I shudder to think how much those damned slap bracelets must have made in the 1990s. The world is a strange place, and people are unpredictable."
You squint at the off-yellow ring. Its stained, swirling pattern and odd amber hue both remind you strongly of the sky you saw in your own dream, though the ring is much paler. Combined with what it's alleged to do, and the fact that the guy who made it was in a fucking doomsday cult... you're that much more confident that this ring does something.
It doesn't have seams, or edges, or... anything. It's just a solid ring, perfectly smooth.
"What's it made of?," you ask. He mentioned an unusual composition.
"Bone," Ezra says with a wry grin. "Bone and other materials that make it much, much more difficult to discern what kind of bone, and the world's greatest scientific minds aren't exactly scrambling to identify this obscure product of 70s cult-a-mania. Even finding these rings is incredibly difficult, now--"
He narrows his gaze.
"Which brings me to my next question," he says. "The question of price. How much is this ring worth to you, now that you know more about it? I've had it for a very long time, and it is very dear to me--"
"Don't let him start that," Afu laughs, "everything in this store is dear to him. And everything in his house, and everything in his storage--"
"Please, young Afu," demands Ezra, "you and Mr. Tuck are always chastising me for not doing business, I am simply--"
This time, it's Kate who cuts Ezra off. "Ezra," she says flatly, putting her hands on the counter and staring him down. "If I could tell you what she's gonna do with that ring, you'd give it to her for free. Trust me."
Ezra stares back at her.
He eyes the ring.
He stares at Kate.
He turns to you.
"Put it on," says Ezra, simply... and he holds the ring out toward you.
You hesitate, briefly, before taking the ring from his hand.
You give it a long look of your own before slipping it onto your middle finger.
It fits. ...Extremely well.
"I see," Ezra mutters, before giving a shallow nod. "Every one of those rings came in a different size. I've witnessed potential customers trying them on, only to leave without finding a proper fit... but every ring that's left my possession fit its final owner perfectly."
He closes the box. He nods to himself again, takes a deep breath, and swallows roughly.
"Take it. It's yours."
"You're sure?," you ask. "I don't have much, but I don't--"
"I insist," he says, before doubling down with more ferocity. "I demand. It deserves someone that wants it, needs it. That ring has sat idly by, watching the world pass from a dusty shelf for far too long. It's going home with you."
You have acquired a Dream Ring.
"Now, if you'll forgive me..." says Ezra, "I need a moment."
And with that, the bathrobe wizard disappears into the back.
A brief silence sweeps the store, finally broken by Cici (who is currently examining the arcade machine at the far end of the store). "Man... he's really attached to that ring, huh?"
"Oh. Bro," responds Afu with a grin, "he's like that with everything. We make like, no money, but Ezra's loaded and the store's kinda his baby. It takes an act of congress for us to sell anything but video games." He gives a small nod to the machine Cici's looking at. "That one's not for sale, by the way--it's Marlow's, but you can play it if you got quarters."
Cici smiles, but shakes her head. "Nah. I'm scared of breaking it."
...Something sets off the alarms in your brain, though. "It's Marlow's? He doesn't... really seem like a big gamer."
"Oh, no," confirms Afu, "but it was a gift from Franklin. They met in prison, they're like best friends. I think Franklin helped make it...?"
adj;fj;a that's a lot to take in, what the fuck.
"Helped make the game?," asks Kate. "Blind Franklin?"
"Yeah," Afu replies. "He was like a programmer or something. ...Before he went blind, probably."
DKJF;AJ;F RED ALERT RED ALERT
"Programmer for who?," asks Kate, moving closer to the counter.
"What company?," you add, to clarify.
Afu just shrugs. "Dunno. Might ask Marlow when he works next. Or Franklin, I guess, guy's too weird for me. Oh, yeah, heads up--"
Afu pulls a phone out of his pocket and tosses it to you; you fumble the catch, but manage to keep it from hitting the floor.
You have acquired a cell phone.
Cici smiles, and hands you a few quarters. You smile back. "Thanks."
You take a swing at the game.
The opening screens show that the game was made by Undercrowned Games--who you've never heard of, but that's not unusual. Even with your pretty stout knowledge of video games, there's so many smaller companies--that often get bought up by or transform into larger companies with different names--that no one could hope to keep up with all of them. Some 'game companies' are just teams that came together for one project before going their separate ways.
The game starts up--and to your surprise, you have heard of it.
Drillga, a game about... digging. It's one of those classic games that always gets listed as being influential on the medium, but was itself only... okay, at best. A lot of later games built on and advanced the formula; it's a classic, but it's not a classic. The low demand for it originally makes it a fairly difficult game to find now, as not that many machines were made. It's low key enough that you honestly couldn't remember who made it--and you've never physically played it. You don't think many people have.
Drillga is sort of a puzzle game. Using various tools, you have to dig through dirt blocks and either fight or avoid enemies, but your resources are limited. You have a pickaxe that always returns, but has short range. You have bombs that you can detonate with another button press, but you can only have one bomb on screen at a time, you have a limited supply, and the explosions push you around (but don't hurt you). Lastly, you have a drill that blasts off and takes out everything in its path, but you only get one drill per stage.
Cici watches over your shoulder as you play the game, whispering. "So is this gonna give you bombs in the dungeon?"
"I don't think so," you reply quietly. "Crush Souls has all kinds of weapons, and I didn't get those in the dream. I don't think games can grant equipment, or even all the main mechanics--or I'd be opening menus and getting power-ups, too. If I had to guess..."
You think about it, based on what you know so far. You can't even be sure this game will give you any abilities; it's total luck that Franklin was a game developer at all, it would take a hell of a coincidence for him to have also made one of the magic dream games.
...But if it is, "It might make me immune to explosions," you suggest. "...Which would help in the boss fight, but it wouldn't be as helpful as having huge jumps or dodge rolls. I should be getting better at avoiding damage, not tanking it."
The whole time you're playing, you think about what Kate said--
about subliminal messages.
There was a big blowup about rock and roll artists hiding backwards messages in their songs; it was proven that not only were the artists not intentionally doing that, but that hearing a backwards message isn't, by itself, enough to influence human behavior. Someone sneaking a reversed KILL YOUR PARENTS into a cartoon or whatever isn't going to make you actually kill your parents.
...That being said
to JUST influence your dreams, and not your waking behavior, wouldn't be so difficult a task.
You used to play a lot of Dance Dance Redemption, and you remember how, after playing it long enough, you'd start to see the scrolling arrows when you closed your eyes. You don't know the exact science behind proprioceptive imagery, but if the dream is like... a dream-dream, then the right combination of motion, shapes, and sounds should be able to affect it. Obviously, the dungeon is pretty consistent in what it is and how it works, but if there's any wiggle room whatsoever...
a very focused subconscious implant could exploit features of the dungeon left variable.
Basically, if your experience is 99% magic dungeon and 1% a real dream, then anything that messes with dreams normally could mess with that 1%. That may be where your video game based powers are coming from. Magic Mustachio Extreme Beach Volleyball is a very flashy, colorful game, but it's not laser honed to slip something into your brain like Magic Mustachio or Crush Souls may be.
...Or like this game might be.
Barring a dramatic change to the rules as you know them possibly granting you explosives, you're a bit torn on the matter. You're curious if this game will give you powers in the dream... but you also know if it does, they're probably not as good as the other options you have. It would prove Franklin knows something--because if you're right about proprioceptive imagery (or a similar concept) being involved, then that means the game does what it does on purpose. Making a game that explicitly affects the dream dungeon on accident would be... well, the odds would be insane, like shuffling an old deck and accidentally putting the cards back in order.
On the other hand, you could just ask Franklin.
On the other other hand, you might not need to.
Drillga has some pretty surreal enemy designs... and a distinctly yellowish sky.
"Hey," says Kate, "toss me your phone."
You toss her your cell phone... a little short, but Kate manages to reach out and catch it before it hits the floor. She turns back to Afu. "Your brother taking new patients?"
"New patients?," asks Afu. "You know he's not a--oh, wait. Yeah." He chuckles. "Business has been pretty slow lately, yeah."
"Alright." Kate fiddles with your phone while you play Drillga. "I've added my number, Cici's, the Back Room's... and Afu's older brother, Lagi." She tosses the phone back to you, and again, you almost but don't quite drop it. Kate continues. "If you need a little medical help, Lagi's the guy."
You lose your last life on Drillga, and turn back to Kate and Afu. "Is there a way I can get a hold of Marlow? ...Or Franklin?"
"Marlow'll be back Tuesday," Afu replies. "He's off Sunday/Monday, and he, uh, doesn't like phones. That, and he's probably out of town. Marlow does a lot of ghost hunts, Bigfoot hunts, stuff like that."
"Franklin's homeless," Kate adds. "And he's Franklin."
Afu chuckles. "Yeah, everybody knows Franklin but nobody knows Franklin. Maybe Marlow. Maybe. Dude's a mystery. I always see him on the bus or at Maria's. Oh, or the junkyard."
"Ezra," you immediately begin, "how much do you know about magic, or the occult?"
"Only as much as it intersects with my hobbies... which is an unfortunately frequent occurence, but I try to keep my nose free of the arcane. There are some things man was not meant get involved with! ...Though I did date a magician once, until I caught him cheating with his assistant. The lanky bastard. Otherwise, my experience with the mystical mostly ends at cultural influence and haunted dolls. Speaking of, we really should look into expanding that closet--the girls are getting... fussy."
"Bro," comments Afu, "we don't need a bigger closet. We need fewer dolls."
Hmm. "...So you wouldn't know anything about true names, Solomon rings, or demonshells."
Ezra shakes his head. "Not ringing any bells, I'm afraid. There used to be a young lady around town that I believe was into all of that business, but I haven't seen her in quite some time--not since before we opened the Back Room. She purchased the previous two dream rings, as I recall it, back when I worked for Toys XS. ...Back when this town had a Toys XS. Back when we had a functioning mall, and not all this Mondol garbage."
You, Kate, Cici, AND Afu all drag your attention straight to Ezra.
"Did you get her name?," you blurt out.
"Was she a librarian?," Kate asks.
"Was she a witch?," asks Afu.
"You guys really gotta let him answer," says Cici.
Ezra holds his hands up. "I did not ask her name nor her occupation, I have never stepped foot in a library, and we did not discuss religion though she WAS adorned in a wide variety of jewelry I would say were pagan in nature. Thank you, Cici."
"...You've really never been in a library?," Cici asks.
"Not once," says Ezra.
"He's too much of a thot to read," laughs Afu, earning a stern flare of the eyebrows from Ezra.
Ezra continues. "She was, as I recall, a sweet young lady. We discussed the weather, and music, though she was disappointed when I didn't recognize the band on her T-shirt. She was purchasing the second ring for her sister, who had been suffering from depression. I attempted to give her the rings for free, but she demanded that she pay. Everything costs, she told me--I didn't understand, but she insisted."
"You gotta stop giving things away for free, bro," Afu chuckles. "We don't get enough customers as it is."
"It is why I was fired from Toys XS," Ezra points out. "I am a sucker for a heartfelt need."
"I thought you were fired for banging customers," Afu remarks.
"That is why I was fired from Games And Stuff," replies Ezra.
Kate leans onto the counter. "Ezra, this is important. The band name on her shirt--what was it?"
Ezra inhales deeply, his gaze wandering toward the ceiling. He dramatically throws one arm out so that he can stroke his chin.
"If I recall correctly..."
"...Something the first?," he says. "First... something."
"The first lie?," you ask.
Ezra points. "Ah! Yes! Indeed! The First Lie. I assumed they were some underground band, as I listen to the radio a great deal and I'd never heard of them. ...Are they any good?"
"Fuck," Kate mutters, and places her head on the counter.
You look at Cici, who shrugs and shakes her head.
You take a breath. "Okay. Marlow said he visited the old library a bunch--he's seen the librarian. He doesn't know her name, but he could probably describe her. If we can get Ezra to verify that it's the same woman..."
"Hold up," begins Afu, "are you telling me Ezra sold those rings to one of the spooky house witches years ago? And we didn't even know? Ezra, bro, we talk about this all the time."
"How was I to know?," Ezra asks with a defensive shrug. "I will not assume every customer I've ever dealt with in my illustrious career has secretly been a witch or a goblin or el chupacabra. Ludicrous speculation about random customers is Mr. Tuck's department."
When Marlow brought the rings out yesterday, he and Afu remembered there being three, not one ring, remaining.
The witches being ... partially but not entirely removed from reality might explain that confusion. Much like how their names have been seemingly scrubbed from documentation and memory by either magic or the feds, even the things they did--like buying a couple of dream rings--have begun to fade and sort of... retcon themselves from everyones' subconsciousness.
Something like that.
You're finding pieces, but the whole puzzle isn't quite coming together yet. It really doesn't help that some of the puzzle's been erased by outside forces.
"Why are you asking me all of this, anyway?," inquires Ezra. "Isn't Mr. Tuck's daughter some sort of Satanist?"
"No, but I think she studied, like... occult history or something in college," Kate replies. "I don't think she like... actually does magic. ...I'm not asking her."
"And she's on vaykay," Afu points out. "Man, she would be into this, though. If she gets back and you guys have solved the spooky house mystery, she's gonna freak."
WE ARE NOT INTERESTED
The three of you take a table near the door.
You finally experience the breakfast burger.
All-beef patty. Sharp cheddar cheese. Eggs. Bacon. Hash browns. Ketchup.
On a burger.
It is the height of decadence, equal parts delicious and terrifying. It is a testament both to man's ingenuity, and to how much a human being can hate their own body. You're pretty sure you gained three pounds just by looking at it. If heart attacks had a mascot, it would be this burger. It is the best burger you have ever had, and may have ruined the experience of eating other burgers.
As you all eat, you discuss the situation.
"How dangerous is the junkyard?," you ask. You keep your voice low; though the restaurant isn't packed, per se, it's approaching 11:00 am, so the lunch crowd is starting to pile in.
"Don't bring food," Kate replies with an immediate smirk.
"Yeah," agrees Cici, "some of the raccoons don't sleep anymore, and the birds around here are just straight up rude. They'll leave you alone if you don't carry snacks--but it's a warzone if you have food in your pocket."
Some of the raccoons don't sleep anymore...? "Did you, just... like, follow the raccoons around and learn their schedules?"
"I had time," Cici says, before adding "I was curious! I was pullin' a double and I thought I saw the same raccoon during the day and at night. ...It's hard to tell raccoons apart, though."
You're pretty sure you can't ask any follow up questions without laughing, so Kate takes over. "Did... did you try putting little hats on 'em?"
Cici turns her gaze downward. "Maybe, yeah."
Once you and Kate have both recovered from laughing (and apologizing, and explaining that you're not laughing at Cici, you're just losing it over the visual of raccoons running around town in tiny hats) you resume discussing the junkyard.
"I think that's where we should go next," you suggest. "We can look for Franklin, we can look for weapons or whatever, and we won't have to prepare for it like we will the old library."
"Ehhh," Kate begins, "maybe, maybe not. We might have to prepare for Franklin. Was that game one of the magic ones?"
"I can't be sure," you reply, "not without taking a nap... but it was definitely suspicious. I think he knows how the games interact with the dream, and if that's the case then he knows about the dream itself."
"And if he knows about the dream, he's probably involved," Kate points out. "It'd be way too big a coincidence if he's just a magic game... dream guy who just happens to live in the small town where all this shit's kicking off. Fuck, it might have been Franklin that killed the witches."
"Isn't he blind?," Cici asks.
Kate gives a big, deliberate shrug. "Who knows? I didn't think he was a wizard, either. ...Or a programmer. Dude could've been faking it this whole time. We start asking questions, we might have a fight on our hands."
You're not so sure... but you really don't know.
"The First Lie isn't really a band, is it?," you ask Kate.
"Hell no," she says, "none I've heard of anyway, and I'm into some pretty obscure shit. You mentioned it when I asked about magic words last night, though--the first lie, and... that shit the bony guys were saying. I have a right to know."
"That one's from my brain," you state, "I'm pretty sure. Remember the first lie was written on the side of a weapon I found... well, part of a weapon. It was broken, and wrapped in weird police tape. The odd comments I got online were all referencing that phrase, too, so I think it's a shibboleth--like a secret handshake. The maybe-librarian pretending it was a band was likely to try and test Ezra... see if he knew what it really meant."
"What I don't get is, why be coy?," asks Cici. "All the secrets and code words... man, if I could do magic, everybody would know."
You mull it over while you take another bite of your burger. It's so good, but you can feel your arteries clogging in real time.
"It's clear there's a culture of secrecy," you begin. "A big masquerade in plain sight, keeping the public from knowing about this stuff. I mean, there has to be, or we'd have known magic was real sooner."
"The feds rolled in after the original owner of your house died," Kate remarks. "I know a government cover-up's pretty cliche at this point, buuut..."
Cici leans back in her seat. "So magic's real, some video games have magic built in, and the government's been covering it up? This is crazy. Why? Why hide it? Even just the dream stuff could like... change the world! And there's no telling what else it can do. Invincible houses!"
"I mean..." you shrug. "The mayor said the house could kill me, and clearly, people have died. Maybe magic's too dangerous for the world to know about?"
"Fuuuck that noise," counters Kate. "Guns are dangerous. Cars are dangerous. I know exactly why the government's hiding magic: because poor fuckers like us can use it."
"I'm not poor," Cici mutters.
"You're sharing an apartment with your sister," Kate replies, "a Mondol apartment. You're not POOR but you're definitely not the kind of people they want doing supernatural shit. Everybody knows the super wealthy are out there doing occult rituals and shit on their private islands--I'll bet they've had magic, real magic the whole time. They don't want anyone else to know about it because magic's fucking free."
"It does mean," you begin, "that not only do we have to avoid anyone that might exploit the house, like Rill Parsons or anyone from MondolGroup... but we can't trust anyone that might report us to the feds, either."
Kate immediately looks at Cici.
"What?," Cici asks.
"You can NOT tell your sisters about ANY of this," Kate tells her. "Bebe likes to talk and Deedee's a narc."
"Deedee's not a narc!," scowls Cici.
"Deedee's dead serious about puppy patrol, she'll totally turn our asses in."
Cici huffs. "...Puppy patrol's a serious job."
You fight back a smile. "You say that, but you're still calling it puppy patrol."
"No cops," says Kate. "No friends of cops, no cop wives, no cops-in-training. We're allowed one former-cop-adjacent, and that's Cici. If they even have a cop friendly bumper sticker on their car I'm hitting the veto."
"The veto?," you ask, trying not to laugh. "Am I president now?"
"You will be," Kate says, stifling her own laughter. "After we figure out this magic shit, we're taking over the country. I don't have to eat the rich, I'm gonna summon nightmare monsters to do it for me."
Cici sighs, smiles, and shakes her head. "This is escalating way too fast. I signed up for a sleepover and some fun ghost adventures, not a coup."
"I haven't even beaten that stupid wall yet," you reply. "I don't see us overthrowing the government any time soon."
In addition to eating and trying to decide how much prep you need for the junkyard, you start writing things down in the notebook you received from Bebe. If information is really just... disappearing, then you reason it might be a good idea to keep documenting your investigation. You have a couple of files on your computer now, but field notes could prove useful, as well.